Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Brandon and I created ClearCheckbook, a financial management tool to help people set budgets, view spending reports, reconcile their bank statements, and more. ClearCheckbook exists as a website with iOS and Android apps for mobile use.
ClearCheckbook attracts customers who want to have full control over managing their finances. They can connect ClearCheckbook to their bank or enter all of their transactions manually without ever needing to connect their accounts.
Today, ClearCheckbook brings in about $18,000USD per month with continued growth year over year.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I started the precursor to ClearCheckbook back in 2005 while I was in college. I wanted a way to track my income and expenses but couldn’t find any solutions that met my needs. Many of the larger scale products had way too many options and features for a college student.
While still in school, I sent screenshots of some spending report my site built to some friends and they were impressed and asked what tool that was. That gave me the idea to turn my tiny website that was only running locally on my laptop into the first version of ClearCheckbook. I spent a week in May 2006 taking my existing code and enabling it to be used by anyone with a login.
As business owners, one of the most important tools we have at our disposal is to provide great customer service. Speedy, friendly, and accurate responses to customer inquiries really set a good impression.
Fortunately, my background was in computer graphic design and web programming so turning my ideas into reality was extremely easy. Starting the site out at the time was extremely easy since all I had to do was upload it to a shared hosting solution which cost a few bucks per month (not too much for a college student).
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
ClearCheckbook had the benefit of me using the tool myself for about a year before scaling it up for a multiple-user environment. All of the features that were available with v1 of the website were the ones I had built and were using for myself.
The majority of the new features that I added during the first year of the site online coming from suggestions that customers had sent in. In those early days, I would test the updates locally and simply upload them via FTP to the webserver. As time progressed, I would ask for beta testers to look over and use new tools and features which greatly reduced the number of bugs and issues with new features.
ClearCheckbook was, and still is, a very low overhead business. I have hosting fees, domain registration costs, and taxes to deal with. I’ve never received a single dollar of investment money. ClearCheckbook has gotten to the point where it is today from a combination of paying out of my own pocket and receiving income from premium membership upgrades (which came a few years after launch).
Describe the process of launching the business.
There wasn’t an official launch with a big announcement when I turned ClearCheckbook on. On May 19, 2006 the site didn’t exist but was online on May 20, 2006 after I uploaded the code to the server.
I let those same friends who I sent those initial screenshots know about the site and they signed up. Via word of mouth and organic search results, new customers started signing up.
From May 20, 2006 until December 21, 2008, ClearCheckbook didn’t make a dime. I had offered the site for free and didn’t have any sort of upgrade method. I paid the hosting fees, totaling a few hundred dollars per month, out of my own pocket during these few years. On December 22, 2008, I launched the first version of ClearCheckbook Premium which had several features and tools that would become unlocked if you paid $4/month.
If I had to do it over, I would try to spread some press releases before launch. It would have been nice if some news or finance-related websites/blogs could make the announcement and help bring in some additional new customers.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
As business owners, one of the most important tools we have at our disposal is to provide great customer service. In my opinion, speedy, friendly, and accurate responses to customer inquiries really set a good impression. I strive to respond to customers within 24 hours of their messages coming in (it usually ends up being less than a couple hours during normal working hours). If you’re running a website, making sure it is very quick to respond on both desktop and mobile browsers is extremely helpful for retaining customers.
The screenshots below are from the Google PageSpeed Insights tool and show that ClearCheckbook loads and response quickly on both mobile (first screenshot) and desktop (second screenshot):
ClearCheckbook still uses the ‘freemium’ model. To get more conversions to the premium upgrade, I like to make it apparent which tools and features are free and which are premium. If a customer is using the free version but sees there are many other tools available that could benefit them, they’re more likely to upgrade. Previously, I had hidden all of the links to premium tools and features if the customer was on the free membership, but once I made them visible and added a note that they were available for premium members, my upgrades increased dramatically.
Believe it or not, ClearCheckbook rarely does any sort of advertising. We rely on native search traffic, word of mouth and organic linking to drive new customers. We’ve noticed that customers who find the site organically are much more likely to be long term customers vs ones that come in via ads.
We go through and re-evaluate meta tags and frontend content to make sure we’re promoting the correct keywords and features to search engines. We take the simple approach of having valuable content on the front end of the site which helps build up better ranking in search engines.
The screenshots below are for the last 30 days of Google Analytics website data (doesn’t contain app data).
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
ClearCheckbook has been profitable for over 10 years thanks mostly in part to the low overhead involved in hosting and maintaining the website and apps.
The main expenses ClearCheckbook has on our books are:
- Hosting (servers, AWS and Cloudflare) - $10,500 in 2020
- Credit card fees - $12,700 in 2020
- Advertising (light Google Ads spend during the holidays) - $900 in 2020
App development - $24,500 in 2020 (rebuilt both iOS and Android apps)
This changes dramatically based on development needs and is usually significantly less than the 2020 expense
Going along with the low overhead expenses, I’m the one who handles all customer support, bug fixes, new features, UI, etc. There isn’t enough day-to-day need for developers to require a full team. I contract with an extremely talented app developer to build and maintain mobile apps.
Like most businesses, our short and long-term goals are customer growth. Demand for financial management apps and tools varies dramatically throughout the year. There is a huge surge in signups around the New Year (people making resolutions to get better at managing their money) and March/April (tax time in the US). I try to use the lower demand times of the year to work hard on getting new features built and released so when new customers find the site around the high demand times, they find exactly what they’re looking for.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The timing of ClearCheckbook couldn’t have been better. Back in 2006, there was no such thing as the iPhone or mobile apps. All I had to do was build and release a website which is something I’m very good at. Unfortunately now, you need a website as well as accompanying apps and a huge social media presence.
When the iPhone was originally released, I was extremely fast to build a mobile version of the website and was lucky enough to get featured on the homepage of Apple’s web app portal for a few days. This brought in a huge number of new customers that I wouldn’t have ever had exposure to.
There are a few huge lessons I’ve learned over the years when it comes to handling web apps:
- Never release an entirely new version of both your Android and iOS apps on the same holiday weekend. We had some unforeseen issues and spent the 4th of July 2020 (and the next week or two) patching bugs and responding to confused customers.
- Always use a staged/phased release when launching a big update to your iOS and Android apps. The update above wasn’t done this way and many of our headaches could have been solved if we saw the issues coming in and could halt the release.
- Always have a plan for scaling up your web servers. ClearCheckbook has been continually growing and demanding more server resources. There were many times in the past where the site outgrew its hosting environments and there was a mad scramble to find a better solution. ClearCheckbook is now hosted on Heroku which makes scaling your resources incredibly easy.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
ClearCheckbook is a PHP app that has a PostgreSQL backend. We’re currently hosted with Heroku which makes it incredibly easy to manage your servers and scale your resources as demand changes over time.
From a personal standpoint when I’m coding, I use Sublime Text on my iMac. I use Bitbucket to manage my git repository and have Laravel Homestead running locally so I can test and work on my code in an environment that matches my production servers.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
One of my favorite podcasts is How I Built This with Guy Raz. Some of the stories you hear from the founders of these large companies are incredible and inspiring.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Dedication to your business is key. I used to get up at 3 am and work on ClearCheckbook for 2-3 hours before going into my full time job. I basically had no life from June to December 2008 since I would get done with my full time job, eat and then go right to bed so I could get up early and start coding the next morning. I found that working on my own project was much easier in the morning than it was after work.
Another thing I did that I believe is very important for bootstrapped businesses is to have a chunk of fallback money in your bank account. When I started ClearCheckbook it was simply a little hobby project that I worked on in my spare time. I graduated college and got a full-time job but was still keeping ClearCheckbook going. I had a little voice in the back of my head that kept telling me I would be much happier working for myself so I started saving with the idea of maybe one day quitting my job and going full throttle with ClearCheckbook.
The company I was working for full-time ended up going bankrupt and I had the choice of finding another full-time job or pursuing making ClearCheckbook my full-time job. I chose ClearCheckbook. Fortunately, I had been living frugally and had a year's worth of expenses saved. I gave myself a year to start seeing some income and if that didn’t happen, I would go find another full-time job. Fortunately I was able to get ClearCheckbook to start making a profit and didn’t have to go back to work for someone else.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Unfortunately, there aren’t any open positions with ClearCheckbook at this time. If the site and apps continue to grow, the need for more employees could be something we start looking into.
Where can we go to learn more?
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